War on LTTE enters decisive stage after fall of Kilinochchi

By P. Karunakharan, IANS,

Colombo : The fall of Kilinochchi, the Tamil Tigers’ political and administrative hub for the past decade, has dealt a devastating blow to the rebels – militarily and psychologically – confining them to their last bastion of the jungle district of Mullaitivu, where the fighting has now begun to rage.

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With their backs to the wall, the question is how long the rebels will be able to fight the determined advancing government troops.

The defence ministry said Saturday that the battle for Mullaitivu has already begun and the advancing troops “have positioned themselves just five km south of Mullaitivu and three km south of the LTTE’s main airstrip”.

Analysts say that the war is far from over but the fall of Kilinochchi, lying 350 km north of here, means that the war on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is entering a more decisive stage.

The Sri Lankan military, which took control of the entire western coastal belt of nearly 85 km from Mannar to Pooneryn last year, registered a New Year victory when it seized control of Kilinochchi town. Pictures released by the military showed the national flag and the military flags fluttering in the heart of Kilinochchi.

The rebels, who lost control of the northern Jaffna peninsula in 1995 and the entire east in 2007, have now withdrawn to Mullaitivu with their resources and infrastructure.

They will now be forced to throw all their resources both in terms of men and materials to fight the advancing military and defend their last bastion.

Retired navy chief, Admiral Daya Sandagiri, said that with the military capture of Kilinochchi “the politico-administrative structure of the LTTE is largely flattened”.

“It is now impossible for the LTTE to raise their heads as an organisation as they did before. They cannot continue to function as a conventional force and will certainly revert to their guerilla hit and run tactics,” Sandagiri told IANS.

Commenting hypothetically on the options available for LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, Sandagiri said that the elusive rebel leader “would neither surrender nor will the military be able to catch him alive”.

“In all probability, he will now be working on his exit routes in the event his strategies to defend Mullaitivu fail, which is very likely.”

The LTTE used Kilinochchi as the centre of its political, police, banking and judicial branches, in its attempt to portray to outsiders that it had all the frills of a separate state.

The town played host to numerous meetings between guerrilla leaders, visiting foreign diplomats and media following the Norwegian-brokered 2002 ceasefire agreement. For the LTTE, the impact of losing Kilinochchi to the army would be immense.

“The military has done its job of weakening the LTTE considerably so that terrorism cannot raise its head anymore. Now it is up to the political leadership to come out with a just political solution that will address grievances of the Tamil speaking people,” Sandagiri said.

N. Srikantha, a parliamentarian of Tamil National Alliance, known to be a proxy of the LTTE, has warned that the fall of Kilinochchi would be “the beginning of a prolonged guerrilla war”.

“This will not be the end of the war. There will be no victor or vanquished in a war of this nature. Even at this stage the LTTE holds a sizable land area and we appeal to the government to act sensibly and agree to a ceasefire as a prelude to a political settlement,” Srikantha said.

But LTTE breakaway leader Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan, well-known as Karuna Amman, has said that the LTTE had now been “politically annihilated” and the rich Tamil diaspora would now “think twice about raising funds for the LTTE”.

“The LTTE can only exist militarily in its hideouts in the Mullaitivu district. Before long, the Tigers will be defeated militarily as well,” Karuna Amman, who is now an MP of the ruling coalition, has said.

Leader of the ex-militant People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) Dharmalingham Sidharthan said that the military would capture Elephant Pass and Muhamalai, the isthmus to the northern Jaffna peninsula, in a matter of days and open the Jaffna-Kandy A-9 main supply route for public and troops there.

“The LTTE has withdrawn to Mullaitivu without wasting their fighting strength too much in Kilinochchi. They are not going to surrender either, and this means that the battle for Mullaitivu will be decisive,” he said.

Sidharthan said the high concentration of civilians in Mullaitivu “would be a headache for the army and the LTTE would use them best to their advantage”.

“The war is far from over and the LTTE could revert completely to their infamous guerilla tactics. But the LTTE are too weak to reverse the current victory by the army,” he said.

The LTTE took control of Kilinochchi in 1990 when the Sri Lanka Army withdrew its garrisons after the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The army had gained control of the town following operations ‘Sathjaya’ I, II, and III in September 1996. The town again fell into LTTE hands in September 1998.

According to observers, the LTTE, which has been fighting to carve out a separate state in the north and the east of the island for a quarter century, faced near extinction twice in the past – first during the liberation operation in Jaffna Vadamaradchchi by the Sri Lankan army in 1987 and subsequently during the war with the IPKF.

In both occasions, they escaped and returned as a much larger force militarily.

But according to Sidharthan, the situation now is “totally different”.

“In the past two occasions, there was somebody to bail out the LTTE, such as India and former president R. Premadasa respectively. But this time, though there were external pressures, President Rajapaksa did not give in to them and stuck to his plans,” Sidharthan pointed out.